Taylor, John Christopher
1815 to 1880
Church Missionary Society
The first missionary incursion into the west coast of Africa was pioneered by the Portuguese in the fifteenth century, and the popular prince of Portugal, known in history as “Henry the Navigator” was the principal initiator. However, the endeavor did not record much success, since its fruit did not endure due to certain factors. The second endeavor, which was initiated in the eighteenth century, was more of a success than the first and led to the planting of enduring Christianity in many countries of West Africa, of which Nigeria is a part. Two interwoven events contributed immensely to the success of this second endeavor: the evangelical Great Awakening of the 18th century, and the abolition of the slave trade.
The Great Awakening was a spiritual revival in church life that started in America, but soon spread to England and Germany, having a profound impact on both sides of the Atlantic. The spiritual life of the church was quickened by it, and a new impetus was given to the missionary enterprise. Christians in America and Europe became concerned about the salvation and the needs of people in other parts of the world. They desire to reach out to other people with the gospel led to the founding of missionary societies, through whose efforts Christianity was reintroduced into West Africa in general, and Nigeria in particular.
The social fabric of the nations was also touched by the revival as it brought about a great change in the lives of many Englishmen and Americans, as the converts became men and women of integrity. These people were no longer selfish and interested only in themselves, but rather began to show concern for the under-privileged. This was demonstrated in several ways, and many of these people developed strong feelings against the slave trade and worked seriously to put an end to it. The anti-slavery posture of the revival eventually led to the abolition of the slave trade and to the liberation of many slaves. The Sierra Leone settlement was also founded and freed slaves settled there. Many of these freed slaves were already Christians and more converts were made from among the former captives. This army of ex-slaves subsequently became the voice of the gospel as they returned to their various home countries to spread the Christian gospel. In fact, some of their number became prominent ministers of the church. Nigeria had her own share of these prominent churchmen, and one of them was John Christopher Taylor.
Life and times of John Christopher Taylor
John Christopher Taylor was a contemporary of Samuel Ajayi Crowther. He was born around the year 1815 in Sierra Leone of Igbo parents (an Isuama father and an Arochukwu mother), who had earlier been sold into slavery from the Igbo country of present Nigeria, but were later rescued and settled with other freed slaves in Sierra Leone. He studied at the Charlotte primary school and at Fourah Bay College, Freetown. Having grown up in Sierra Leone, Taylor was tremendously influenced by its Christian environment. This led him to a strong commitment to the Christian faith, which eventually culminated in the ordained ministry of the church. He served first as an Anglican catechist in the Temne mission, and then was pastor of Bathurst Church, Freetown. He was also a schoolmaster for sixteen years, and was subsequently ordained as a priest by the bishop of London in 1859.
The Igbo in Sierra Leone, just like their Yoruba counterparts, retained a strong interest in their homeland and especially in its Christianization. In the early 1850s, some of them petitioned the bishop of Sierra Leone to establish missions in Igboland. Consequently, a party of three prominent Igbo citizens, led by the first black American college graduate, the Rev. E. Jones, visited Nigeria, but they were prevented by circumstances from entering Igboland. The Igbo community in Sierra Leone was not discouraged by this failure, since they believed that just as God has people in other parts of the world, he also has many people in Igbo country. The import of this is that even though their first attempt failed, they had a strong conviction that God would use other people in the Igbo community for the promotion of his work at his appointed time. Several years later, God honored their faith and the project came to fruition, when the first Christian mission in Igboland was established at Onitsha, in 1857, under the leadership of J. C. Taylor.
As a way of opening up the interior of the Niger area to colonial and missionary influence, the Niger mission project was initiated by the British government. The first expedition was made in 1841, but this was a failure and recorded a large number of casualties. Nevertheless, those who were set upon the evangelization of the area were undeterred. This led to subsequent voyages, one in 1854, and the other in 1857. Crowther was a part of the expedition from the beginning, but J. C. Taylor was appointed to sail together with him for the 1857 expedition.
J. C. Taylor had earlier exercised a notable ministry at Bathurst on the Gambia, but God had another assignment in store for him. Consequently, when the 1857 expedition was organized to go up the Niger again, the Church Missionary Society (CMS) was invited to participate, and the invitation was warmly received. Crowther and Taylor were appointed by the society to accompany the expedition, and were charged to take steps to establish a Niger mission. Before his departure from Gambia, on April 26, 1857, Taylor preached his farewell sermon to an overflow congregation at Bathurst. It was received with great enthusiasm, and he was very encouraged. One elderly man was quoted to have urged him on saying:
Thank God, Thank God! Go my son, and tell the happy news to the heathen. Oh, is the word true, that our children too can go out like white men and preach the Gospel? If anyone had told us this in bygone years, who would have believed it? Lord, send plenty more of our children. Go, do not fear, people will talk plenty and say, “They will kill you, they will eat you.” The Bible says, “The hairs of your head are all numbered.” Oh, who can thank the CMS! Who can pay them for their goodness to poor Africans! No man on earth – none but God.
With these inspiring words, Taylor was encouraged to sail out with the expedition, which boarded the Dayspring in Liverpool on May 7, 1857. Crowther and Taylor joined the steamer at Fernando Po. Leaving Fernando Po on June 29, 1857, they arrived in Onitsha on July 25 of the same year.  Taylor was left as the first missionary of the Onitsha station, with Simon Jonas to assist him. They worked there for twenty months and in the process raised a parish of some 13,000 souls. Strictly speaking, the Christian mission in Igboland began in 1841, when Simon Jonas spent a few weeks preaching at Aboh. However, it was not until the 1857 expedition that the CMS opened the first permanent missionary base at Onitsha, in northwestern Igboland. Initially, the Niger and the Delta area were the two frontiers most exposed to missionary influence, and for thirty years, starting in 1857, most of the missionaries in these areas were Africans from Sierra Leone. Thereafter, as time went by, the local people joined in the work of evangelization. Onitsha Christians first took the gospel to the nearby community of Obosi and the slaves of Bonny did remarkable evangelical work in the oil markets of southern Igboland.
However, scholars attributed the success of Taylor at Onitsha to the experience and love of Crowther. Crowther left Taylor at Onitsha with detailed written advice comprised of eleven points, and his mixture of spiritual experience and practical common sense was quite remarkable. Fergusson enumerated the eleven points as follows:
One, cultivate friendship with all the people as much as possible. Two, private conversation will be of more importance than public worship. Three, be patient and forbearing. Four, develop the study of Ibo vocabulary and grammar, and its best reduction to writing, and make as many translations as possible. Five, improve the geographical knowledge of the area. Six, don’t be disappointed if you find the people do not keep their engagements, and in paid employment, make small advances to develop this. Seven, the first building must be temporary, but should be good and comfortable; Onitsha must be the main centre, but houses should be built at Abo and Ossamare. Eight, (relates to Crowther’s own movements, but tells Taylor to keep in touch with the parent committee). Nine, keep regular journals. Ten, if funds run out, credit of twenty-five pounds is possible with the trading station (“factory”). Eleven, should anyone arrive from the society without a specific task, station him at Abo.
With these words of advice, Taylor and Jonas were left alone at Onitsha with only the Lord Jesus Christ as companion. Although the work enjoyed an appreciable degree of success in later years, it was not all rosy. The west African environment of the time was not only colored by European prejudices, it was also full of dangers and threats to the life of the average African, as occasioned by its record of slavery and murder, blood-feuds and tribal wars, human sacrifice and twin killing, superstition and idolatry, and filth and disease. Taylor recorded some of their difficulties, starting on August 2, his first Sunday at the new preaching station, writing: “Lord’s Day – where am I this day? Where is my stated congregation, who would join me in hearty responses of our beautiful liturgy? Where is the pulpit to deliver the message of the Sovereign God, the Universal king? I am now plainly in a strange country.” But he also reflected more deeply as he concluded, “Our savior had no stated pulpit, but went everywhere preaching.” Record has it that on that very afternoon he preached in the open air to a congregation of more than 500 souls. That week, twelve children were brought to him for education, and he considered that as the beginning of their direct missionary work.
The work at Onitsha was quite demanding, but Taylor was up to the task. He was not idle, neither was he confined to one place. He traveled extensively, visiting places like Oboshi, Oko, Nsube, Nkwerre and Abo, preaching and teaching as he went. These journeys are nothing today thanks to modern road networks and the use of automobiles, but in those days, they were formidable ventures. However, the work turned out to be promising, as he later recorded:
If there is any portion of the heathen world which would be born of God in a day, this is the place. Already we see signs of their multifarious deities being despised. Although the strong man is here keeping his palace, his kingdom is doomed to fall, because the stronger than he is with us.
After one of his visits to Nsube, Taylor also made this observation, with a challenge to his fellow Africans. He wrote:
I had often read the promise, “Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God,” with deep interest but not until this day did I feel its force, when there sat before me a congregation of pure Africans, who had met together to worship the God of the universe. Here for the first time the joyful news of salvation was announced and the people seemed to enjoy it. Again, if Ethiopia must hear the untold mysteries of the Gospel, by whom must they hear them? It cannot be otherwise but by her own sons and daughters. There is no cause to fear in the Ibo District. The people are ready to receive the Gospel from the mouth of their own children. Ye enlightened sons of Africa that are inured (accustomed) to the climate; will you leave the 26,000 inhabitants of Nsube to perish for lack of the bread of life? Ye sons of Africa in general, whether born at Sierra Leone or the West Indies, here are tracks marked out for your usefulness; though these people are only just emerging out of darkness, yet they can value the Gospel of Jesus, and do manifest as much attention and respect to us, whilst preaching, as you could desire… If there is African blood in you, and if you wish to ameliorate your countrymen, seek that divine grace which is in Christ, learn of Him as He labored for His countrymen, and for our redemption. Spend and be spent for Him, as He has done for you. Come and rank yourselves in this glorious enterprise… There is much in the signs of the times to make us believe that the set time to favor Central Africa is come, and the rapid development of the Redeemer’s Kingdom is near…
His preaching and teaching continued to attract and appeal to the local people, but response was slow, as his first baptism did not take place until 1862, five years after his arrival. And yet, he enjoyed the confidence of the people. He won the trust of kings and bore the nickname Eze Onowu, Prince of Prime Ministers, and his influence there helped the church in times of persecution. Perhaps more important was his practical love for those in need. His care for others, with whom he had no family ties, practically endeared him to the common people, and he developed a strong bond of friendship with them.
By March of 1858, the mission house at Onitsha was completed, which was a remarkable achievement for the mission. Also, the Onitsha Training Institution was established in 1861, combining an industrial center with a teacher training institution. This stimulated the interest of the Igbo in western education, and neighboring Igbo communities were beginning to appreciate formal education and to invite missions to come and establish similar schools in their areas. This was before the Niger Company bombarded Onitsha and destroyed the Waterside in 1887.
Simultaneously in 1861, Taylor and Crowther opened a new station at Akassa, at the Nun entrance of the Niger. The first Sunday school at Akassa attracted forty-seven adults and about a dozen children into the church. This was before either Taylor or Crowther knew many words in Ijaw, the local language. This made for quite a dramatic scene, as they tried to communicate with the people using the little Ijaw that they knew.
Crowther took the first class, pointing to the phonetic alphabet characters and calling out the familiar letters. However, the people stood mutely watching him, as they did not understand what to do. It was not until Crowther found the right word in Ijaw that he was able to instruct them to repeat after him. Only then were they able to understand what to do, and they instantly started repeating the sounds of the alphabet after him. Meanwhile, Taylor stood at the door, enticing more of the people who stood outside to enter, shouting to them in Ijaw, “Ebi di ri ebima,” meaning “Good white man’s book is the best,” and “Ebi, Ebim, Ebima! Aa, beke diri ebima!,” meaning “Good! Better! Best! Yes, Englishman’s book is the best.”
The scene here was indeed quite challenging. Earlier, with his many assignments, Taylor was working at his translations of the Igbo language, following Crowther’s advice. By 1860, he had rendered in the Isuama (Owerri) dialect of Igbo, the four gospels, Acts, Corinthians, and Philemon. With the language challenges at Akassa, Taylor was compelled to add the Ijaw language to his study. Soon, he made friends with Koko, a local trader, who spoke the best English in the area. Together they began composing an Ijaw primer, but Koko died before any remarkable progress could be made.
Unfortunately, Taylor also had major problems with his translation of the Igbo language. As a result of many factors, he was not able to make the type of contributions to that language as Crowther made to the language of the Yoruba. He did not have a vast knowledge of the language, as his parents spoke different dialects of Igbo, and there were also intrinsic difficulties in the study of Igbo which are still not wholly resolved today. Furthermore, he was not a scholar of Crowther’s caliber, and he did not receive the type of expert advice which Crowther had received for his study of Yoruba. All these factors seemed to have created a defect in the Igbo translation of the New Testament that he completed in 1866, and when the work was submitted to the CMS, it was severely criticized and returned to him for revision. This made him feel “entirely disheartened and discouraged,” if not angry. On this account, he left the mission in 1868 and returned to Sierra Leone. He trained missionaries at Fourah Bay College in Sierra Leone before retreating into obscurity, and he died in 1880.